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Christianity: Minus

posted on 09.28.2006 at 12:46 PM

On the list of those who contributed to the remarkable spread of Christianity, the Roman emperor, Constantine, may rank with Paul and, oh yes, Jesus. Constantine, through his support and (late) conversion, enabled the religion to conquer the empire. The danger, of course, is that the empire might conquer the religion.

Certainly, this pillar of Christianity was a little weak in the "do-unto-others" area. The example that sticks in my mind: Constantine traveled to Rome in the year 326 with his wife, his son by another marriage, his step-nephew and his mother. By the time he arrived he had put to death - in fear of plots? because of rumors of sexual misbehavior? - all but his mother.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:46 PM | Comments (3)

Christianity: Plus and Minus

posted on 09.27.2006 at 8:58 AM

Debate over dinner last night about the historical consequences of the spread of Christianity.

-- On the positive side: the end of slavery in the Roman Empire, where it had been as widespread as it ever has been; a new consciousness of the worth of each person.

-- On the negative side: the closing of the Academy in Athens (after 900 years) and the other (pagan) philosophy schools; the lapsing (in the Western empire at least) of scientific investigation; 900 or so years of intellectual regression or, at least, much less progress; the triumph of a religion that emphasized death or what happens after dead or the End of Days -- not life.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:58 AM | Comments (4)

All We Have Gained by Our Unbelief

posted on 09.26.2006 at 8:16 AM

This from Robert Browning's poem, "Bishop Blugram's Apology." The Bishop is holding forth before a skeptical journalist:

All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt:
We called the chess-board white,--we call it black.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:16 AM | Comments (1)

Integrity Restored, Zeus Attacked

posted on 09.25.2006 at 9:50 AM

What a juicy contretemp (relatively speaking) followed the decision by the Raving Atheist to cease all attacks on Jesus and Christianity. Suffering from contretemps envy and in a moment of heightened cravenness, I contemplated withholding all attacks on Zeus and paganism. And, faithful (so to speak) readers will note that there has not been one attack on Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, Athena or any of the Olympians in the past month.

However, my commitment to free and open discussion has proven stronger even than my desire for an attention-getting scandal. So blogosphere, you can forget your angry charges of hypocrisy (which, to be sure, seemed a bit slow in coming)! To demonstrate that this is once again a site where No God is Safe, I give you an attack on Zeus.

It is from one of the satires written by Lucian, the popular 2nd-century Greek writer. In it Zeus explains that he heard "Professor Anaxagoras" -- a pre-Socratic philosopher/scientist --"trying to convince his students that we gods are just nobodies." Zeus' response? He hurled his thunderbolt at him. "I threw it too hard," the god acknowledges. And he missed, hitting a temple instead. (Thunderbolts hitting temples have always been among the signs from the heavens that interest disbelievers most.) Now, Lucian reports, the king of the gods is complaining that he needs to get his "thunderbolt...fixed."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:50 AM | Comments (2)

Reason and Religion

posted on 09.22.2006 at 9:53 PM

New York Times columnist David Brooks on Pope Benedict XVI's riot-inspiring comments:

Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?

We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?

Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."

Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...

Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:

"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.

Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 PM | Comments (3)

Hymns to the Milky Way?

posted on 09.21.2006 at 11:05 PM

From Newsweek:

On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.

Is this possible to imagine? Might we be -- or might we want to be -- beyond such rites, God-driven or not?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 PM | Comments (8)

Atheism and Morality

posted on 09.20.2006 at 11:16 PM

The question of where morality might be found without God has been a preoccupation of this blog. Here, from Jerry Adler's round-up in Newsweek of current books on atheism, is an interesting critique of Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

Katha Pollitt made this argument at a conference at NYU some time ago. Somewhere, Pollitt suggested, there is a woman convinced the only thing between her family and ruin is her husband's commitment not to take another drink and the only thing that prevents him from breaking that commitment is his belief in Jesus. What has atheism to say to her?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (25)

Christians and Frozen Yogurt

posted on 09.19.2006 at 6:08 PM

A nice line from Sam Harris, as quoted in Newsweek:

Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:08 PM | Comments (4)

Atheism Resurgent?

posted on 09.18.2006 at 5:34 PM

Something is definitely going on here.

The latest piece of evidence I have collected that the argument against God is being treated with a new respect is a review-essay in Newsweek by Jerry Adler. Adler is dealing with a new book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, along with a not-so-new book by Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and a forthcoming book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. What's remarkable, for someone who has spent some decades following American journalism, is that while Adler quibbles a bit, he never dismisses the Harris-Dennett-Dawkins point of view.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:34 PM | Comments (1)

Violent Christians

posted on 09.17.2006 at 1:04 PM

It takes, of course, a certain amount of chutzpah or blindness (along with political insensitivity) for a Christian to criticize Muhammad for the "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Hypatia.jpgOf the multitude of possible examples of Christians bringing, as Jesus says he does, "not...peace but a sword," my current favorite is the story of 4th- and 5th-century Alexandria's leading philosopher, Hypatia. This revered exponent of Plato and neoplatonism ran afoul of Cyril, the new patriarch of the Catholic Church (who had managed to chase away the city Jews). After Cyril's people spread rumors that Hypatia was a witch, a mob of Christian faithful entered her home stripped her, dragged her behind a chariot, and possibly chopped her body to pieces before burning it.

Cyril is now a saint in the church over which Benedict presides.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:04 PM | Comments (15)

The Big Bad Wolf

posted on 09.17.2006 at 10:16 AM

Is there not something intolerant at the heart of most existing religions? The logic, if you'll forgive this foray into the obvious, runs like this:

1. We have found the one, true way to heaven, salvation, righteousness, enlightenment, whatever.

2. And therefore (this is occasionally implicit but usually explicit) everyone else is wrong and, consequently, lost, deluded, damned, dangerous, whatever.

Pope Benedict XVI.jpgIn settling into pluralistic democracies religions have tried to deflect attention from their big teeth by putting on bonnets and skirts. But then they open their mouths and.... The current example, of course, is the line now making headlines and causing riots from that speech by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope was quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor:

''He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'''

Of course, Benedict's slap at atheists in the same speech, which we have discussed, has failed to cause any riots.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:16 AM | Comments (6)

Four Gods...Plus

posted on 09.15.2006 at 6:47 PM

We've talked before about the many Jesuses. Here, from a Baylor/Gallup survey reported in USA Today, are four Gods Americans believe in:

The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity's sins and engaged in every creature's life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on "the unfaithful or ungodly," [Baylor's Christopher] Bader says. Those who envision God this way "are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals," Bader says. They're also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).
The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, [Sociologist Paul] Froese says.
The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.
The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is "no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us," Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own.

There's a kind of progression here: toward a more and more "wan" Deity. Perhaps the next steps in the progression would be:

The We-Need-Some-Sense-of-Meaning God -- otherwise, as Nietzsche puts it, the earth would be "unchained" from the sun.
God as an Idea -- a beautiful one, Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov insists.
The Metaphoric God, who may not exist but is a useful way of thinking of certain existential and moral questions.
The God Who Makes for a Good Story -- life, presumably, seeming more interesting if we pretend He's around.
The We-Got-to-Hang-On-to-Something-that-Might-Remotely-Qualify-as-a-God God -- otherwise we'd be atheists.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:47 PM | Comments (6)

Pope Benedict XVI Weighs In

posted on 09.14.2006 at 6:07 PM

The latest to join our dialogue on the nature of disbelief is Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately, his comments are a bit obscure:

Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God's image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe....
Only this can free us from being afraid of God which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism... Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life.

His Holyness -- at least as interpreted by the New York Times -- seems to be aiming for something here beyond mere lucidity. I guess the point is that our fear of God keeps us from accepting His assistance in overcoming our anxious fear of the world and of the emptiness of life.

It's hard to argue with the Pope on this "anxiety before the emptiness of life" thing. God knows we've all had days when stuff seems more than a little random. No doubt a bit of supernaturally imposed good/bad, right/wrong believe that the Son and the Father are consubstantial/don't belief the Son and the Father are consubstantial might help. Problem is -- and maybe this is part of the reason Benedict seems to be having difficulty making himself clear -- God Himself often seems more mysterious, shall we say, than clear on matters such as the proper relationship between religion and reason and what we should be doing about Darfur."Who can straighten what He has twisted? Koheleth wonders in Ecclesiastes.

And Benedict must be hanging out with a weird bunch of atheists. I can imagine a some haunted sinner running from God and his alleged judgement. But, rather than being afraid of God, the atheists I know are just unimpressed with Him as a concept (or Concept).

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:07 PM | Comments (6)

Death -- Part V

posted on 09.13.2006 at 11:08 PM

Is there any consolation an atheist can provide about death? Here is Pat Berger, who became a crusading atheist after 9/11, in an public radio interview:

She says the hardest conversation about atheism she's ever had was with a dear, dying friend, who begged her to believe so they could be together in heaven.
All she could say, Berger says, was, "Roseanne, I love you."

Is there anything else she might have said?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:08 PM | Comments (15)

American Beliefs

posted on 09.12.2006 at 10:51 PM

Some numbers from a large survey of Americans' religious attitudes by Gallup and Baylor University (via USA Today):

** 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force.

Not surprising. That would leave 8.2% of Americans not believing in God or the equivalent. But then the survey includes this:

** About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%.

Is this evidence that the religious revival is real? Or might this represent a difference in the surveys? And when asked dead on:

** only 5.2% of Americans say they are atheists.

This could be bad for book sales. The next number sounds ominous:

** 45.6% of all Americans say the federal government "should advocate Christian values."

Not clear, however, whether that means helping the poor or requiring prayer in school.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:51 PM | Comments (6)

One Fewer God

posted on 09.12.2006 at 1:23 AM

In that interview in Salon (which has, for the moment at least, disappeared from the Web) Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, uses this cool line:

Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god. So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

I know I've heard this line before. According to the Web (which occasionally does have its limits as a source of knowledge), it was first used by someone named Stephen F. Roberts:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Roberts even has a page in which he formally takes credit for it.

However, I suspect the line is much older than that. I found this Bertrand Russell quote which is close:

I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

But I believe this has to go back further -- to Charles Bradlaugh or Baron d'Holbach or someone. Anybody know?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:23 AM | Comments (1)

9/11 and Atheism

posted on 09.11.2006 at 10:24 AM

This from an interview on public radio with Pat Berger, a 78-year-old woman in New York who appears to have found (or strengthened) atheism through the events of September 11:

"I really realized that it is all chance, and it is all random," she says. She remembers learning that a woman in her son's apartment building died in the twin towers because she happened to walk into a meeting at the wrong time. "There is no one watching out for anybody," Berger says.

I can think of other examples of this: One is a relative whose belief in God did not survive his experience with the Holocaust. Why does tragedy not more often lead to a surrender of belief in a benevolent God?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:24 AM | Comments (14)

Have Atheists Become News?

posted on 09.09.2006 at 11:22 PM

And is this piece from the Columbus Dispatch (not the first we've found recently) filled with more interesting quotes than is usual in news stories or am I just prejudiced?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:22 PM | Comments (8)

Bob Dylan and Religion

posted on 09.08.2006 at 8:13 PM

Dylan.jpgThe number one album in the United States as I write is (no fooling!) Modern Times by an old goat some of us have been obsessing about for quite some time.

High on the list of Mr. Dylan's talents is the capacity -- while, as he puts it in a recent interview, conforming to his own "reality" -- for disappointing large portions of his fans. The secularists among those fans -- cheered, justifiably or not, by early songs such as With God on Our Side -- have taken some big hits.

However, here near the end of the last song on this new album is an elliptical lyric that seems to imply that the Deity may have exited, for a moment at least, from the Bard's world-view:

As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma'am, I beg your pardon
There's no one here, the gardener is gone

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:13 PM | Comments (3)

Dying for Jesus

posted on 09.07.2006 at 8:55 PM

Dark Sided has a link to the trailer for a documentary called "Jesus Camp," in which children are asked if they are prepared to die for You-Know-Who. A fair amount of children are being indoctrinated to die for various You-Know-Whos in this supposedly enlightened world today.

Many have died because of an absence of belief in the supernatural qualities of Jesus and The Others, but rarely with head high -- proudly declaring disbelief. Instead the tendency has been to choose Galileo's strategy and, when faced with the threat of execution, cave. Is the problem that atheists don't have summer camps? Or, as I suspect, is the problem that their martyrs can't expect heavenly reward? Wouldn't there be less killing and dying if fewer among us expected heavenly reward? Would there also be a reduction in the number of people standing up, with head high, for various dangerous causes?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:55 PM | Comments (9)

The Wages of Disbelief -- 2

posted on 09.06.2006 at 11:38 AM

In my little slice of America announcing I'm working on a history of disbelief has been no problem. Found a useful reminder that Americans are not always so tolerant from a Virginia Pilot article about a small, local group called, Freethinkers and Atheists of Virginia:

"We get that all the time: 'It's a Christian nation - if you don't like it, why don't you just leave,' " said Lauren Floyd, a computer programmer who co-founded the local group.
It was a measure of the stigma atheists say they face that five of the 11 members present on this night last month refused to be interviewed. One man said he was job-hunting and feared that being known as an atheist could cost him employment.
Yvette and Matt Edwards, who live in Norfolk, said hostility was plain in the reactions their atheist-themed bumper stickers seemed to elicit from passers-by.
"We've had people raise their Bible and yell at us," Matt Edwards said. The couple ultimately stripped the fenders clean after wearying of finding scribbled messages such as "Go to church" and "God loves you" on their parked minivan.

Curious if others have experienced any of this.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:38 AM | Comments (9)

Agnosticism: "Because It Was Not the Sun"

posted on 09.05.2006 at 11:08 PM

Due sense of the general 'ignorance of man' would also beget in us a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever, which is real....If a man were to walk by twilight, must he not follow his eyes as much as if it were broad day and clear sunshine? ...He might lament that the darkness concealed many extended prospects from his eyes, and wish for the sun to draw away the veil: but how ridiculous would it be to reject with scorn and disdain the guidance and direction which that lesser light might afford him, because it was not the sun itself!

This is from a sermon by the 18th-century Anglican clergyman, Joseph Butler, in response to Ecclesiastes. Rev. Butler's point is religious: "Let us adore that infinite wisdom, and power, and goodness, which is above our comprehension."

But might not this powerful image be used by atheists to counter agnostic arguments? No we can't see into ever nook and cranny of the universe to say with absolute, 100-percent surety that no God lurks there, but can't we see enough to determine that the presence of such a being would be highly, highly unlikely?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:08 PM | Comments (1)

A Grim Thought

posted on 09.05.2006 at 1:32 AM

This is Stephen Metcalf in a review of Thomas McGuane's new collection of stories, Gallatin Canyon:

Hell is other people, goes the old existentialist saw. Words to live by, I say; now if only it weren't so hellish to be alone.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:32 AM | Comments (0)

Labor Day Message

posted on 09.03.2006 at 9:27 PM

Herewith a selection from this book in progress, involving nineteenth-century British atheist leader Charles Bradlaugh. The point today is to note that atheism in Bradlaugh's day was a working-class movement:

In March 1859, Bradlaugh was scheduled to speak at the Guildhall in Doncaster, to the north of London. In response, a group calling itself "Friends of Religion" felt called upon to issue a "caution to the public" in which it advised the town's population to make sure Bradlaugh would gaze "on the unpeopled interior of the Guildhall." In fact, the interior of the Guildhall in Doncaster, when Bradlaugh mounted the stage, was "crowded to excess," according to the Doncaster Herald, which nevertheless dubbed Bradlaugh's talk a "frantic panegyric in honor of hell."

"There boldly, defiantly, recklessly," that newspaper sneered, "stood the Creator's work, toiling, sweating, laboring strenuously to heap slander upon his Creator." The Herald's correspondent expressed "disgust" and "horror" that a "young and accomplished man" could stand in front of a crowded hall "while the beauteous moon marches aloft in the vast and indefinable firmament" and dare state "that no God lives!"

Bradlaugh returned to Doncaster later that year. This time the "Friends of Religion" were better organized: He was denied use of any of the town's halls. So Bradlaugh spoke outdoors on a temporary platform erected under the roof of the corn market. "He is a person possessing great fluency of speech, of ready wit," another paper, the Doncaster Chronicle, conceded, "and the declamatory style of his oratory is well calculated to excite and carry away a popular audience." With no walls to restrict its size, the "popular audience" that evening was reported to include four thousand people. The city quickly forbade Bradlaugh from speaking in the market, so the next evening he spoke from a wagon in an open area near the market. The subject that night, a Bradlaugh standard, was the "History and Teaching of Jesus Christ." More than seven thousand people turned out to hear him question that history and that teaching.

One defender of Christianity that evening managed to hit Bradlaugh in the head with a stone as he made his way back to his lodgings. Nonetheless, some percentage of the people of Doncaster clearly had an interest in the subject of atheism. Some percentage of the people - working-class people - evinced a similar interest in cities all across Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:27 PM | Comments (2)

Missing the Point on Deuteronomy

posted on 09.02.2006 at 8:49 PM

One of the pleasures of this project has been the opportunity to read or reread much of the Bible. This has not always been easy to explain to friends, many of whom have spent considerable energy, particularly in their early teens, avoiding reading the Bible. Still, it is hard to turn a page -- in either Testament -- without getting a new take on a familiar line. a new perspective on an aspect of an old religion or a sense of the complex dance performed by belief and disbelief.

Knowing some history certainly helps, particularly with a book like Deuteronomy, which appeared magically and conveniently one day while the temple in Jerusalem was being renovated and just happened to support every argument the king, high priest and the rest of the Yahweh-alone forces had been making. The message that only one God should be worshipped (Yahweh), in only one place (that temple in Jerusalem) -- put in the mouth of Moses -- is repeated over and over. It is, consequently, in Deuteronomy, more than anywhere, that monotheism is being created. Along the way this one God has to demonstrate that he can handle alone what the whole heavenly host had previously managed: that he could handle weather like Baal, that he could handle fertility like Asherah. The book contains a fascinating mix of threats, bribes and bluster.

David Plotz' misbegotten "Blogging the Bible" feature on Slate, however, manages to read Deuteronomy without any sense of its history and significance. No new perspectives arrive. The screen fills, instead, with the muted gurglings of a writer in over his head.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:49 PM | Comments (3)

The Itch for Religion -- 2

posted on 09.01.2006 at 12:13 PM

Or maybe what we're seeing is the culture -- human, global culture -- in the process of shaking off this need for a Heavenly Father. As we shook off (mostly) kings. As we shook off the belief that the earth is the center of the universe. Occasionally -- individually, globally -- we take a step back.

Presumably humans have an "itch" to see themselves in the center of the cosmos, too, but have managed, over time, to overcome it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:13 PM | Comments (5)